Stuck Ideas: IT Spending vs. Innovation

This is a classic battle or struggle: IT Spending vs. IT Innovation.

If IT is a cost-center (as it often is), then it's about keeping the spending down. How do we cut costs? How do we do more with less (less = fewer servers, fewer people, less cost)?

If IT Innovation is important and a business driver, then we need to spend money on it and ensure that we have enough IT to deliver the innovation that we need. How do we get smart people in here? How do we generate and prune better ideas? What's the best way to extract the most money from these opportunities?

I saw a web ad today (from IBM) about this. Sometimes ideas get stuck in IT because they are innovative. If innovative doesn't have a bottom-line-item attached to it, then it has a large risk of getting stuck (in most companies). And if something is innovative, it may be hard to attach a bottom-line item.

Google Engineer: "Presentations would be cool. We can import Word Documents and Excel Spreadsheets, but not PowerPoint. Let's do that." Other Googler: "That'll cost money to build. How much will we get in return?" GE: "I don't know. How would you put a dollar value on that?"

I think this is part of the reason why companies have research labs. If you need innovation, you open a research lab - because it's hard to have a culture that both ensures measured results (predictable) and innovation (chaos). You have a research lab that isn't expected to produce anything useful or marketable (ok, it is, but it's not held to that for every project attempt) and you can drive innovation in that environment.

"People's side projects, the one's they follow because they are interested, are often ones where you get the most value and innovation. Never underestimate the power of wandering where you are most interested." -Some guy at Amazon (I pulled it from a discussion about scaling Amazon)

I'd tent to agree with that. And yet "wandering" is hardly predictable.

Off the top of my head: the computer mouse, the computer GUI (Graphical User Interface: e.g. Windows), Microsoft Outlook Junk E-Mail filter... all came out of research labs. Some of these generated money for their parent companies, others did not. And many, many projects fell by the wayside on the way to these successes.

(Balance: Google's GMail, Facebook, and eBay came out of "people's side projects and wanderings.")

Good (new) ideas come together with bad ones. And that is inherently unpredictable. The only "safe" strategies that I am familiar with are the research lab and venture capitalist. Research lab = create suitable environment, stock with smart people, hope for the best (sounds like a science experiment). VC = look at a lot of options, pick the ones that look the best, invest in enough options that you've covered your bases even when the majority fail.

The VC strategy is really the side project & wandering strategy. They find people who have launched side projects that might have a chance of going somewhere. So much innovation (in our North American economy anyways) comes out of new ventures where there aren't rules about spending. The quote on HP before it launched:

"Two you men who simply wanted to invent things.... Every garage has its rules and so did this garage: Invent something useful. Invent something significant."

If you want to watch this quote, it's in a beautiful web marketing piece for HP by hillmancurtis. And yes that garage mentioned is the same famous HP garage that I mentioned here.

This is something that I am just beginning to scratch the surface on (mentally). But it triggered in my brain as one of those "bigger issues" that needs addressing and a strategy for my own work.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007, 12:00 AM

tagged: hillmancurtis, hpgarage, innovation, r-dstrategy